Thomas Arthur Leonard: the early years
Thomas Arthur Leonard, founder of the Co-operative Holidays Association and Holiday Fellowship, was born at 50 Tabernacle Walk, Finsbury, London on 12 March 1864, son of Thomas Leonard, clock and watchmaker, and his wife, Agnes. Leonard’s father died when he was only five years old and he was brought up by his mother, who was the daughter of John Campbell, Congregational minister at the nearby Whitefield’s Tabernacle. He thus inherited a non-conformist tradition. Following the death of his father, the family moved to Hackney, during which time Leonard spent some of his schooldays in Heidelberg in south-west Germany, which gave rise to his interest in International relations. By 1881, he was living in Eastbourne where his mother ran a lodging house, and where he drifted into employment as a builder’s clerk. It was in Eastbourne that he became interested in Sunday school work and met his future wife, Mary Arletta Coupe, whom he married on 5 January 1888. They had a son, Arthur, and a daughter, Jessie. Arthur, born June 1889, unfortunately died in 1902 at the age of 12 years when hit by a train near Warrington. Jessie, born December 1891, survived him until her premature death in November 1948, just 4 months after Leonard’s death in July 1948. His wife, Mary, died the following year, in June 1949.
Leonard’s leaning towards the Congregational church led him to enrol in the mid-1880s at the Congregational Institute in Nottingham, run by Dr. John Brown Paton, an educational and social crusader who had a major influence on the direction of Leonard’s future work. His training in Nottingham was followed by pastorates in Barrow (1887-1890) and Colne (1890-1894) in Lancashire. It was in ‘the bleak upland township’ of Colne, as he described it in his memoirs Adventures in Holiday Making, that Leonard first sought to enhance the lives of artisan and textile industrial workers though the provision of ‘recreative and educational’ holidays as an alternative to the more common annual exodus during Wakes week to Blackpool and Morecambe.
In June 1891, Leonard took 32 members of his church’s social guild for a three-night holiday to Ambleside in the Lake District. Its success led to a trip to North Wales in the succeeding year, and the strong support of his mentor, John Brown Paton and the National Home Reading Union (NHRU), founded by Paton in 1889. In 1893, Paton encouraged Leonard to expand his holiday programme. ‘Why not do this for thousands’ Paton is quoted as saying.
Holidays organised “Under the auspices of the NHRU” followed whilst Leonard continued with his pastorate at Colne and, from January 1895, at Paton’s first Social Institute in Islington, London. However, the continued expansion of the holiday programme led him to cease his pastoral work at the end of 1896 to take up the position of paid General Secretary with the Co-operative Holidays Association (CHA), which was established as a legal entity in 1897 with J B Paton as President. Its objects were “to provide recreative and educational holidays by purchasing or renting and furnishing houses and rooms in selected centres, by catering in such houses for parties of members and guests and by securing helpers who will promote the intellectual and social interests of the party with which they are associated”.